Everything we do in life that involves other people will involve some sort of performance and improvisation. In a world where impression and reputation is everything, people are in constant management of their image and the way it is perceived. It is for these reasons that are vital in the study and understanding of language and communication to understand performance and improvisation, and just how prevalent they are in our everyday lives.
We practice them in the big things and the small. At a meeting or a job interview, it is obvious that you are going to try and perform in a way that will present only your best qualities and give off your best impression. And in a foreign country, similar to the example given by Mary Catherine Bateson in her article about improvisation, one will almost always find them selves in a situation where they are learning the rules as they go. But these performance and improvisation are seen in our everyday encounters as well. Whenever you meet someone knew, you will most likely perform differently than you would with a best friend of ten years. Part of this performance will be improvisation, as you are learning how to act towards them on the fly. Performance and improv are seen everywhere, so a close look at the two terms can offer insight to much about what actually goes on in our daily communication.
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In Erving Goffman’s article entitled “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” Goffman defines performance as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.” What Goffman means here is that any individual will act in a way to express himself so that others will be impressed. We try and put on our best faces and allow our reputation and image to blossom. It is the ways we are wired, as we are naturally inclined to take pride in ourselves and much of that pride comes from the affirmation of other people. Goffman says it in another way, by saying that “when an individual appears before others he will have many motives for trying to control the impression they receive of the situation.” An example of my own life about performance from Goffman’s view is when I am with a certain girl I spend much time with. Hoping to one day marry this girl, my impression management goes into overdrive when I am with her. Although I feel most comfortable with her to simply be real and “be myself,” I still try to always make her see me in the best light possible, and this extends to all areas of my life with her. When I dress to go out with her, I always try and look my best. When I am engaging in a conversation with her, I constantly try and say all the right things for whatever the situation calls. It even affects how I live my life at home, as I keep my place much cleaner with better music and more ambiance when I know she will be coming over. All these things reflect on me, saying I am clean, have good taste in music and am ambient (I guess whatever that means.)
Bateson has a slightly different view of performance in her article entitled, “Joint Performance Across Cultures: Improvisation in a Persian Garden.” She talks about performance in situations where you are not completely comfortable with what you are doing and therefore cannot just simply give off the impression that you want to. Bateson says that in every culture and situation there is rules, and a person is not always going to be familiar with what the rules are or which rules will be played with. Bateson uses several examples, including one about traveling to Beirut to meet her husband’s family and the unknown rules revolving around a greeting kiss. Since she was not aware of whom she should kiss and who she should not, she had to improvise and figure out the rules on the fly, all the while managing her image and performance at the same time. An improvisation situation I often find myself in is with the coach of the volleyball team I cover for the newspaper, and the way we exchange greetings. While I don’t have the problem of the kiss that Bateson described, as that would be quite awkward, our exchange of greetings seems to change each time. As he is an elder to me, I must always show respect to him, and the natural way of doing that would be giving him a handshake. But often times he likes to give a high five to show that we have a friendly relationship as well as professional. And to maintain performance, both my handshake and my high five must be well executed. So as I approach him, I must decide which it will be by trying to distinguish his mood and observing the setting. Once it is clear whether the encounter will be friendly or professional, I must then execute the greeting to perfection.
Understanding performance and improvisation is vital to understanding communication because it allows you to see beyond the simple words or actions of a communicative encounter, and see what is really being said or acted out.
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